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Ian H. Birchall

Literature and Reformism

(Autumn 1965)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.22, Autumn 1965, p.33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Discrimination and Popular Culture
Ed. Denys Thompson
Pelican, 4s

Although most of the authors of the various essays in this collection have no political connections, their preoccupation with the problems of ‘popular culture’ is akin to that of the New ‘Left’ of a few years ago. The essays deal with different aspects of mass culture – advertising, television, press, cinema, pop music and design – but the treatment and underlying assumptions are strikingly similar. In every case the method is impressionistic; we are given quotations at length from advertisements, women’s magazine stories and pop songs, linked with assertions of a vague nature. Thus: ‘Nowadays more than ever the love theme is almost universal in commercial lyrics. But it must be love of a very romantic and sentimental nature’ (Donald Hughes). Perhaps this is true; perhaps not. What is needed is an analytical breakdown of the themes and forms of successful pop songs. But none of the contributors offers work of this kind. Hughes, in fact, blatantly distorts when he quotes Mike Sarne’s Come Outside as an example of ‘romantic and sentimental’. The argument, then, is conducted in emotional, not factual terms. Most of the authors show a certain lack of sympathy with the forms of art or communication they are dealing with, blended with an air of paternalist elitism.

The term ‘commercial’ constantly recurs in the essays, but this does not mean that there is any socialist analysis. David Holbrook feels nostalgia for the ages of Bunyan and Dickens; Michael Farr looks back to William Morris. But in fact, in all class societies, art has been a commodity to be bought and sold. The only new feature in the twentieth century is that the market has been vastly widened. Likewise, all the contributors fail to grasp the essentially dual nature of culture in a commercial society. Thus pop music is, on the one hand, crudely distorted by commercial pressures and the drive to maximise profit; on the other hand, just because it must appeal to a mass audience, it must to some extent reflect and embody the feelings and aspirations of a whole generation. In short, the problem of culture cannot be solved separately from the problem of society. In a way, some of the contributors recognise this; yet their proposals are depressingly naive: ‘subtle legislation’ (Holbrook), a design survey conducted by several industries based on ‘disinterested observation’ (Farr), a recognition of the need for ‘fuller and more continuous participation in the processes of government by real (and not formal) majorities of people’ (Graham Martin). In such a reformist framework, no problems, least of all those of culture, can be solved.

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